Uphills strain my heart. I struggle up inclines listening to the pound of my jugular vein. On especially hot days, I have to stop once or twice to drink water, eat, and regain my senses. I call the dizziness that I feel when I stop the “white blindness” because for a second or two my vision fades behind a speckled curtain of receding blood pressure.
Lynn has little trouble getting up hills. She passes me easily, her walking poles clicking in sync with her effortless ascent. Downhills are another matter. I zip to the bottom, waiting or turning back to see what is taking her. She struggles. The reason for this is a rare bone condition. She recently wrote to me:
The little bird working the edge of Pond 1 looked like a chicken to me. A small chicken that poked its beak in the water.
“Anything interesting?” another birdwatcher asked.
“I don’t know,” I said. “I’ve been looking for the Orange Bishop.”
Oh he’s over there,” said the newcomer. He looked for it. “I saw him from a different angle.” He walked back to where he had been standing. His wife pointed to it and we found it by triangulation.
“Anything else?” he asked.
“Well, I think I’ve seen a rail. It’s been running in and out of those reeds.” I nodded down the embankment. This piqued the couple’s interest. “A rail? Do you know what kind?”
“I don’t know my rails very well,” I said. “I’d have to look it up.” It was true. Until I investigated my guidebooks and web apps, I had had no idea that coots were related to rails. Made sense because coots looked an awful lot like these little birds. Several birders joined us. The rails came out of the reeds and waded into the shallow water. A middle-aged East Indian gentleman with the biggest set of binoculars that I had ever seen slipped behind us and asked in a voice just the slightest of tones past a whisper “Anything interesting?”
I told him about the rails. He looked at them through his lenses. “Sora,” he announced. “Look at the yellow bill.” Another rail came out of the reeds. “Down there is a Virginia Rail. Dark beak. That is how you tell them from the soras.” Everyone was excited about the rails, even more excited that they were about the Orange Bishop. I had hit on the Popular Thing of the moment.
“It’s a good day when you see a new bird,” said the expert. Yes, it was.
I’ve been working on the Irvine Ranch Conservancy’s Native Seed Farm where they grow plants for rehabilitating the lands burned by the 2008 Santiago Fire. Our recent tasks have involved harvesting seeds from various species endemic to the local coastal sage scrub biome.
The same fire opened the land for use. The farm exists on a plot that once grew avocados. Encroaching flames torched the grove before they turned to the east and threatened my home.
Volunteers and paid staff perform most of the chores. Idle farm workers with wages paid by the Irvine Ranch join for a few months every spring. This keeps them on hand while cash crops grow and there is little to do elsewhere.
We were off to see the turtles, the green sea turtles of the San Gabriel River. A pair of power plants spewing warm water created an ideal temperature that brought the chelonians north, far from the tropical waters where they spawned. Their existence had been dismissed as cryptobiology until a team from the Aquarium of the Pacific arrived at the spot and confirmed that they were the real thing come for a spa. Lynn and I had seen sea turtles or honu in Hawaii. This was our first attempt to view them closer to home.
Peaceful Valley with Camp Pendleton in the background
“You’re the first person we’ve seen on this trail this afternoon,” I said to the mountain biker riding toward me.
“There’s a woman hiking alone back there,” he said.
“That’s my wife,” I said. “We’re turning back.” I put my walkie talkie to my mouth and gave Lynn the news. We’d done enough of this trail. The sun was beginning to come down and there was just more of the empty sage scrub and dead meadows that had accompanied our footsteps from the start of our walk in the back country portion of San Onofre State Beach.
We’d never been to Santiago Oaks Regional Park even though we’d lived only half an hour away, so we laded ourselves with plenty of water and drove down Santiago Canyon Road to find it. After nearly missing the turn, we followed a confusing set of bends through a wealthy neighborhood that brought us to the main gate and the parking lot.
Eucalyptuses dominated the forest. Pines and a couple of exotics that I did not recognize filled much of the space. Laurels and sycamores thronged the wash. Oaks seemed scarce aside from a few oft-photographed trees along the Santiago Creek Trail and a few youngsters planted as part of a restoration project.
Lynn and I decided we needed a short hike after our storming of Black Star Canyon the day before, so we headed down to Laguna Niguel and parked the car at Seaview Park for the downhill walk to Aliso Peak.
Yes, you read that right.
Lynn asked me a second time if I was sure about what the guidebook had said.
Rocks Along the Silverado Creek Trail, July 12, 2014
It was my intention to arrive early before other hikers obliterated the tracks of the previous night, but my punctuality didn’t help: at least one docent preceded me and other walkers passed me so there was nothing to see other than scat by the time I scanned the trail. Saturday offered another open access day on which the general public could explore the lands to the east of Black Star Canyon Road. We picked up our lime green passes at the registration table, walked up the road, and started our journey into the dry forest of Baker Canyon. Eucalyptus gave way to live oaks and sycamores as we marched further in. Baker Meadow was lovely even with the dead grass. Coyotes were eating some kind of pitted fruit — the cactus hadn’t ripened yet so it wasn’t that — and leaving purplish mounds in the middle of the path. We lost the forest canopy and trudged up the Hall Canyon Trail — a hard climb that led to a mercy of switchbacks and a crest over which we passed to get to the flood plain of Silverado Creek.
One short spur trail makes all the difference in the Aliso and Wood Canyons Wilderness Park. When I ascended the Wood Creek Trail to get a view of the canyon beyond, I saw that the trail climbed further and then cascaded down in a series of stairs that I thought would take me back to the main trail. Lynn would not be happy with this country, I realized, so I directed her to go back to the Wood Canyon Trail and wait for me at the first sign she found. The trail — marked “easy” on the maps — dropped into a live oak forest along the creek but where was the main route? The path jumped and swerved along the west bank of the creek — which was fed by water from adjacent housing tracts — over three or four bridges until it finally crossed back and rediscovered the road after about half a mile.
Orange County Parks rules by a strange definition of wilderness. There is no buffer between the suburban and the canyon landscapes. Houses encroach on the very fringes of its wilderness parks. The water on which the plants and wildlife depend comes from the runoff of residential irrigation systems. Concrete aprons permit easy fording of streams. Mountain bikers rocket by with the perennial cry of “On your left! On your left!” Rangers patrol in pickups. A dilapidated wooden corral holds the golden grass that the ranchers seeded to overwhelm the bunch grasses and sedges native to these fields.
“You know,” I said to the man with only a water bottle on the last stretch of the Bear Canyon Trail, “this is the longest 1.1 miles I have ever walked. It never seems to end.”
“I was thinking the same thing,” he said.
“I’m not even halfway there,” I cried.
“No, Four Corners is just ahead.”
So it was. I walked into the sparsely seeded meadow where the trails met just a couple of minutes later. The view amazed me: mile upon miles of uncut, unburnt chaparral. The elfin forest grew upwards to twenty or more feet on either side of the trail. Chamise blossomed at the edges of the open tract, offering itself as a foreground subject for every photo I took.
Bluewater Canyon from Four Corners, Cleveland National Forest